How We Interpret Life

Last weekend, when I was in AL, I read Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun and a resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners.

I wanted to share a personal (astonishing) discovery.  Of course this is something I had already known, but had never thought of in precisely this way.  It was one of those a-ha moments for me.

When she talks about the eight worldly dharmas (“four things we like and become attached to and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid”), she tells a particularly pointed story as illustration.  First, an explanation for those of you not familiar with this terminology.  There are four pairs of opposites (which create the total number of eight dharmas).  Pleasure and pain (we like pleasure; we seek to avoid pain).  Praise and blame (again, we like praise; we seek to avoid blame).  Fame and disgrace.  Gain and loss.

If we become immersed in the seeking or avoiding of any of these, we suffer.  Which makes sense, if you think about it.

What’s astounding is that we create our own misery by weighting (or obsessing over) things differently.

“Let’s take praise and blame.  Someone walks up to us and says, ‘You are old.’  If it just so happens that we want to be old, we feel really good.  We feel as if we’ve just been praised.  That gives us enormous pleasure and a sense of gain and fame.  But suppose we have been obsessing all year about getting rid of wrinkles and firming up our jaw line.  When someone says, ‘You are old,’ we feel insulted.  We’ve just been blamed, and we feel a corresponding sense of pain.

“Even if we don’t talk about this particular teaching any further, we can already see that many of our mood swings are related to how we interpret what happens.  If we look closely at our mood swings, we’ll notice that something always sets them off.  We carry around a subjective reality that is continually triggering our emotional reactions.  Someone says, ‘You are old,’ and we enter into a particular state of mind—either happy or sad, delighted or angry.  For someone else, the same experience might be completely neutral….

“The irony is that we make up the eight worldly dharmas.  We make them up in reaction to what happens to us in this world.  They are nothing concrete in themselves.  Even more strange is that we are not all that solid either.  We have a concept of ourselves that we reconstruct moment by moment and reflexively try to protect.  But this concept that we are protecting is questionable.  It’s all ‘much ado about nothing’—like pushing and pulling a vanishing illusion.

“We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace.  A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they hook us, see how they color our perception of reality, see how they aren’t all that solid….”

Do you see what I was floored by?  We create our unrest and bitterness and anxiety, by where we attribute value and importance.  And it’s different for everyone.  How scary is that?

So, today I’m trying to be more aware of my mood swings.  Why am I feeling that way?  What is within me that would bring that feeling up?  Why am I reacting this way?  Is there another way?

All good questions to ask myself.  How about you?  Do you do this type of self-examination already?

This weekend, I’m spending time with family, so remember to check out the podcast published this Monday, called “Are You Trustworthy?” And I’ll see you back here on Tuesday!  Have the loveliest of weekends, y’all.

[Post image: Alone by c-louise on stock.xchng]


  1. Allison
    Mar 12, 2011

    What beautiful thoughts. It makes so much sense that our perception has so much power and that it is worth something to think about it consciously instead of disconnecting and becoming a “victim” of life and others.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Elissa
      Mar 12, 2011

      Well, I really “stole” these thoughts, but they were too powerful not to share. LOL. Glad you found it meaningful as well…

  2. Don Rogers
    Mar 14, 2011

    It always is good for us to evaluate and re-evaluate ourselves and our lives. I hate to think about how long I went before I ever truly did this for the first time. Now it seems to be a regular occurance. I am now happier, more fulfilled, and peaceful than ever. Go figure…….

    • Elissa
      Mar 14, 2011

      Isn’t that funny how that works? 🙂

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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